SHADMIA'S WORLD

Just Another Guy with Opinions

Principal “Outs” Gay Student and Gets Sued

Posted by shadmia on August 22, 2008

A Senior at Ponce de Leon High School in Florida went to her principal with a problem. She was a lesbian and was being harassed by other students. She naturally expected the principal, David Davis, to take care of the situation so that she could return to classes free from the ridicule and intimidation of other students.

Instead of being sympathetic towards the student’s predicament, principal Davis went on the attack. He told her that homosexuality was wrong. He said she should not tell people she was gay and he informed her parents of their conversation. He even ordered the student not to talk with other “middle school” girls.

After learning about how this student was treated by the principal, some of her friends began a protest on her behalf. They wore gay pride T-shirts and dressed in rainbow colors. The principal was livid and proceeded with his own campaign of intimidation. He questioned the students about their own sexuality and their association with other gay students. Some of them were suspended from from school.

“Davis embarked on what can only be characterized as a ‘witch hunt’ to identify students who were homosexual and their supporters, further adding fuel to the fire,” U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak recounted in his ruling. “He went so far as to lift the shirts of female students to insure the letters ‘GP’ or the words ‘Gay Pride’ were not written on their bodies.”

One of the protesting students, Heather Gillman, an 11th-grader, who was suspended from school complained to her mother, Ardena Gillman, who got in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Ardena, who wanted to support her daughter, understood that tolerance needed to be taught in school. Ardena also knew that her actions might cause problems in the small “Bible Belt” town.

Ponce de Leon is part of Holmes County, Florida, very close to the Georgia line. It has about 20,000 residents. There is some agriculture, but most people are employed either by prisons or schools; some commute to the Gulf Coast to work in tourism. Ponce de Leon, with fewer than 500 residents, has a cafe, a post office and an antique store.

“What happens when these kids get out in the real world after they leave Ponce de Leon and they have a black, homosexual supervisor at their job?” she said.

The ACLU took the case on behalf of Heather Gillman. They contacted the lawyers representing the school trying to clarify the school’s position on wearing rainbow clothing, the initials “G.P.” (for gay pride), and whether students could wear T-shirts that say “I support my gay friends.” See a copy of the letter here.

The school lawyers replied saying that they would not tolerate any gay-themed expressions in the school and referred to any such symbols as support for an illegal organization or secret society. The school said that it would not allow any expressions of support for gay rights at all because such speech would “likely be disruptive.” See the letter here.

After receiving this response from the school, the ACLU began court proceeding against the school and its principal, David Davis. They claimed that the school violated the students civil rights. See the complaint here.

The case went before Judge Richard Smoak of the United States District Court, Northern District of Florida, Panama City Division. Principal David Davis admitted under oath that he had banned students from wearing any clothing or symbols supporting equal rights for gay people.

Davis also testified that he believed rainbows were “sexually suggestive” and would make students unable to study because they’d be picturing gay sex acts in their mind.

After a two day trial the judge ruled against the school district which was ordered to pay $325,000 in ACLU attorney fees. See his comments here.

Principal David Davis was demoted by Steve Griffin, Holmes County’s school superintendent, and school employees must now go through sensitivity training. However much of the community find it hard to understand what Davis did wrong.

“We are a small, rural district in the Bible Belt with strong Christian beliefs and feel like homosexuality is wrong,” said Steve Griffin who keeps a Bible on his desk and framed Scriptures on his office walls. “I don’t think we are that different from a lot of districts, at least in the Panhandle, that have beliefs that maybe are different from societal changes.”

Many in the community support Davis and feel outsiders are forcing their beliefs on them. Griffin, who kicked Davis out of the principal’s office but allowed him to continue teaching at the school, said high schoolers here aren’t exposed to the same things as kids in Atlanta or Chicago.

“David Davis is a fine man and good principal, and we are a gentle, peaceful, Christian, family-oriented community,” said Bill Griffin, 73 and a lifelong Ponce de Leon resident who is no relation to the district superintendent. “We aren’t out to tar and feather anyone.”

The lawsuit could reflect a division between the high school students who have grown up in an era of gay tolerance and the community’s elders, said Gary Scott, a school board member. The judge’s scathing rebuke left Scott questioning how his community’s beliefs could be so different from the judge’s opinion

Maybe Scott like many in the community did not fully understand what the judge was saying when he ruled against the school and ex-principal David Davis:

“I emphasize that Davis’s personal and religious views about homosexuality are not issues in this case. Indeed, Davis’s opinions and views are consistent with the beliefs of many in Holmes County, in Florida, and in the country,” Smoak wrote in an opinion released last month. “Where Davis went wrong was when he endeavored to silence the opinions of his dissenters.”

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